As I mentioned in the article on hydration myths, dehydration is not the cause of exercise-induced muscle cramps. The exact cause is still unclear, but as you get hot and exhausted, the defense mechanisms that are supposed to prevent your muscle from over-stretching or over-contracting fail. The over-flex mechanism takes a nap while the over-stretch systems go haywire and cause a painful contraction. For years, we’ve been told it’s caused by dehydration and loss of electrolytes, but it turns out that doesn’t help. Fortunately, there is a trick that seems to get a misfiring nervous system back in order within minutes - pickle juice!
Works within 85 seconds
A study from Brigham Young University used electrical stimulation to induce a muscle cramp in the test subjects’ big toe (it hurt too much to do it on larger muscles) after they completed multiple 30-minute bouts on a recumbent bike. They worked the test subjects until they lost 3 percent of their bodyweight due to sweating, which is considered mild dehydration. They then gave one group 2.5 ounces of pickle juice from an ordinary jar of Vlasic dills and the other group they gave deionized water. The pickle group were relieved of their cramps within 85 seconds while the cramps continued on for the water group.
Too fast to be electrolytes
The most interesting thing about the results was how fast they occurred. There wasn’t enough time for the fluid or salts in the pickle juice to leave the stomach and travel to the cramping muscles. This was confirmed in the study when they tested the subjects’ blood work five minutes later and found no changes. There must be some other mechanism that gets the misfiring nerves in the cramping muscle back in line. The researchers theorize that the acid in the vinegar is activating receptors in the throat or stomach that sends out nerve signals which inhibit the muscle cramp.
Works with hiccups too
You’ll also notice pickle juice is a common home remedy for hiccups. Hiccups are caused by a misfiring diaphragm and I can attest that it works just as quickly. I use this trick often with my kids when they can’t seem to shake them through other means. They’re not big fans of the brine itself, but I found simply holding some in your mouth for a few seconds before spitting it out also seems to inhibit a misfiring diaphragm.